Quite some time ago now I hooked up with a chap called Matt Cohen regarding his plans to bring a new line of ukuleles to the UK. We discussed and talked about an instrument review, but things went on hold. But here we are again with the Noah Monkeypod Tenor ukulele.
I mention that delay for good reason though. Matt was living out in Vietnam with a business called Saigon Guitars and had the aim of launching the 'Noah' brand of ukes. In our discussions though it became clear that this was not a case of a fly by night brand wanting to jump on the bandwagon - the delay happened because Matt was just not happy with the prototypes he was getting. So he went back to the drawing board until he was satisfied. I admire that. These are not made in huge far eastern factories, but in a small workshop - and knowing that Matt used to live there, you know that he actually spent time with these builders.
I believe his first outing was at the Grand Northern Ukulele Festival at which I picked up a couple of instruments to take a look at. I've been having a good play and am here now to tell you about the Monkeypod Tenor.
Monkeypod is a new wood for me, and comes from a plant that is related to the bean. This Noah Tenor uses all solid monkeypod and comes in with an RRP of £180 in the UK - a pretty competitive price for a solid wood tenor uke.
The body is standard shaped and is finished in satin, although a gloss version is also available and it is nice to have that choice. Looks wise, that monkeypod is certainly something to behold. It has a really interesting curly grain pattern, with plenty of dark stripe amidst the otherwise quite pale wood. It is very nicely book matched on the top and back, and the stripe in the sides follows the line of the body which is also nice to see. Often, at the cheaper end of solid wood instruments, this is where they can let you down on the looks front, with odd angles in the grain patterns, or tops that do not match. Full marks here.
That satin finish is nicely applied. Some satin ukes at this price point, such as those by Kala can have a satin finish that almost makes the uke feel artificial. This is ultra smooth also but has enough grain in it to avoid that feeling.
The top and back are joined to the sides with cream coloured body binding with a trace of black white black stripe in the top and back to set it off nicely. The binding is also made of pale maple which is a really nice touch and something you normally see on higher end instruments (most makers plump for good old plastic). It gives the uke a kind of vintage look that I particularly like.
Looking at the bridge, we have a standard designed tie bar bridge with a bone saddle. You can actually see the shaping marks on the saddle which hints at the fact that this is not totally mass produced. The bridge mounting looks a little chunky for me (I have certainly seen more subtle bridges) and it also looks like it has too been given a satin coat like the body. I have not seen that before, as usually they are in fairly unfinished wood. I don't think that is anything to complain about, but it is new to me.
Around the soundhole is a very pretty rosette which appears to be inlaid rather than being a transfer, another nice touch.
Where the sides meet at the butt of the uke we have some more maple binding which I like and turning the thing over we have more nicely book matched monkeypod wood on the back. The back also has a slight arch to it to help with sound projection which is nice to see.
Looking inside the uke, things are very neat and tidy. No glue seepage and the kerfling holding the sides to the top and back is notched and neatly applied. I like ukes where you can see the grain of the back when looking inside - a test to check if a uke is really solid wood, and we have that here. I also rarely talk about the smell from sound holes, but this oozes a woodshop smell! What I particularly like here is the Noah label - Which comes with the model number, serial number and date of manufacture hand written on to it. It says 'handcrafted in the workshop of Ton That Anh' and he has also signed it - a nice touch which gives it a more personal feel than a laser printed standard label.
Looking inside allows you to see the edge of the sound hole and the top wood to me looks ever so slightly on the thick side - nothing like a cheap laminate, and I have seen far more expensive ukes with similar tops, but I would have expected a slightly thinner wood.
On to the neck, this too is made of maple and is nicely finished. It has a chunky profile which I personally like and sits quite snug in the crook of your thumb and forefinger. It also has a wider than average tenor nut width which I always prefer so feels great for me. The neck is in two pieces, with the only join being at the heel. Incidentally, that heel is capped with a maple finish which is also nice to see.
The fingerboard is in Indian Rosewood, and is evenly coloured. On first glance it appears to be bound on the edges, but I think that is actually a layer of finish that hides the fret edges. We have 18 nickel silver frets, and 14 to the body. They are not overly chunky and are finished well. Forward facing fret markers are at the fifth, seventh and tenth frets in mother of pearl, but really disappointing that there are no player facing markers on the side. The edges of the fingerboard are a little sharp or angular for my liking. That is not the fret edges, rather the edge of the rosewood. I think it is exacerbated by the fact it is a wider than average neck, but expecting rolled fingerboard edges at this price point would be too much to ask.
Past the nut (which too is bone, and set nicely) the headstock is made of the same neck maple and faced with a veneer of monkeypod. It is refreshing to see it has it's own shape, and not a Martin three pointed crown copy and looks good and balanced. The Noah logo appears to be inlaid in mother of pearl and is applied neatly. Incidentally, whilst the company behind these is called Saigon, Matt chose to call his ukuleles 'Noah' after the name of his son - a nice touch!
Tuning is provided by unbranded sealed geared tuners. I would have preferred the buttons to be a little smaller, and my G tuner needed tightening a touch, but otherwise they work just fine and I have seen far far worse.
The whole package is rounded off with Aquila brand strings (what else) and a padded and zippered gig bag of decent quality. Quite a package I think for this sort of money, and putting the Noah brand head to head with tenors from the likes of Ohana, Eddy Finn, Mainland and the like. So how does it stand up?
To hold, it is nice and balanced. Not overly heavy and comfortable (like a lot of tenors!). I do notice that edge on the fingerboard though. That isn't to say it is uncomfortable, and perhaps I am just pampered as my tenors have rolled edges, so don't let that put you off.
Setup wise - out of the box this was perfectly acceptable. I would probably raise the action at the saddle a touch (which is unusual!), but the nut is perfect meaning no tuning issues at the lower frets. Intontation all over the uke is acceptable and as such we have an accurate instrument here.
Playing it, the first thing I noticed is that it is not the loudest tenor I have come across. That is not necessarily a bad thing though. Many people choose volume over tone, and that is wrong in my view. At this price though, perhaps not surprising, and if you want top dollar projection and tone then you have to pay, top dollar!. It may be down to the strings, but I don't think that top wood thickness helps. Fingerpicked it really sings and there are some lovely harmonics up the neck when strings are played together and that is where I think this really shines. It is a clear sounding uke with quite a bright voice, whether strummed or picked with nice separation between the strings. Straight up strumming is where I think it is actually quietest (or, more accurately, where I would expect it to be louder!). I would love to change these Aquila strings (which may be partly to blame - I am not a fan of them) and experiment with some others to see what the uke can do. Do not get me wrong - this uke will easily be heard and outperforms many ukes sound wise but it is, lets say 'subtle'.
Overall though it has a pleasant sound which I rather like. I don't usually recommend ukuleles based on looks, but this certainly has them in spades, with some build features that you would expect at a far higher price point. I think for the money this uke is a real contender against the Kala, Ohana, Mainland and Eddy Finn ukes that sit at the same sort of price and well worth checking out. Check out the video review below for more
Looks, finish and detailing
Wide chunky neck
Volume when strummed
Fingerboard edging finish
No side fret markers
Looks - 9
Fit and Finish - 8
Sound - 8
Value For Money - 9
OVERALL - 8.5
Noah Ukes are available at an increasing number of UK dealers and you can contact Matt at Saigon guitars for more details if you want to get hold of them firstname.lastname@example.org